Dusk was falling when the body was discovered.
It lay on the straw floor in the centre of the old barn. Seemingly, it had been there at the foot of the hayloft ladder for some time. It was a particularly unpleasant sight, laying on its back, its yellowed teeth grinning wide in a last, frozen grimace of death.
Chief Inspector James Hardiman stood over the body with an expression of mild discomfort on his face. He felt no revulsion for the corpse or its odious appearance however. He had investigated many deaths before. Hardiman's discomfort came from the acrid, clawing atmosphere of an old barn that had baked for five weeks in the heat of high summer. Even in his short sleeved cotton shirt, he was freely perspiring. His intense expression also betrayed a deep concentration. He stood there silently for some time, focused on the body.
Looking on, his assistant, Tom Bower, was beginning to feel a little agitated by the Inspector's lack of action. Surely, he thought, this case was cut and dried. It was perfectly obvious to him what the cause of death was. He was also confident that he could identify the perpetrator of the murder. Tom had a real urge to interject and state the painfully obvious, but he knew better. His superior, in this mood, was not to be interrupted. If Tom so much as cleared his throat too loudly, he would probably be fixed with a baleful stare, and he was already uncomfortable in the heat. So he stood and dutifully waited, biting his lip.
A faint noise made Tom glance toward the doorway, and there he saw Melissa, waiting. How long had she been standing there? he wondered, as he acknowledged her with a faint smile. As far as Hardiman was concerned though, she was not welcome. He had made it plainly obvious that he had a problem with her. To Tom though, she was a very welcome distraction. At the same time, he felt a little concern for her. This would be her first real murder investigation, and he wasn't sure how she would cope.
Melissa was a few years younger than Tom, but in the brief time he had known her, he had already become extremely fond of her. Yet she was so inexperienced in these matters, having only recently joined the team, and Tom's heart went out to her. She remained standing in the doorway, surveying the scene pensively.
Tom smiled a little wider, encouraging her, but she didn't respond. She looked pale and reluctant, and he knew it would be a real ordeal for her to venture any closer. He didn't blame her. Death at any time was unpleasant enough. Death by violence was, well... Tom had been told that you got used to murder scenes after a while. He didn't think he would ever believe that.
He turned his gaze back to James Hardiman, who was now leaning over the body, his eyes narrowed, peering, examining the evidence minutely. After a few seconds, James straightened up, a superior frown on his brow. He stood a good two inches taller than Tom, lending him an imposing and authoritative appearance.
'Not as straightforward as it might seem....' he declared, turning to his assistant.
Now it was Tom's turn to frown. 'Well actually...' he began, but was cut off.
'Y'see, the body didn't fall from up there.' James said, flicking a finger to indicate the hay loft, 'and there are signs of a struggle....'
'But...' Tom tried again.
'... and yet it appears, from the open, grimacing mouth, that the death was a long drawn out and extremely painful one...' James continued relentlessly.
Tom blinked twice, sighed and looked over at Melissa again. This was all becoming a little frustrating.
'I would place the time of death at early morning,' James carried on, clasping his hands behind his back, and pacing up and down. He sniffed deeply, and instantly regretted the action. Again, an expression of disgust briefly flirted with his face and then was gone. He was enjoying his moment too much to allow a little farmyard pungency to ruin it.
James Hardiman turned sharply to face the door, saw Melissa and his expression clouded. He turned quickly back to Tom and raised his eyebrows quizzically. Tom took this as an invitation to join in, so he opened his mouth to speak.
'Of course...' James continued, looking back down at the body, 'We'll need to wait for the coroner's report, but my deduction is that this death was caused by....'
'Suffocation!' Tom blurted out, unable to contain himself any longer. James looked irritated by the interruption. He decided to ignore the outburst.
'Poisoning.' he said, in a measured tone.
Tom died a little inside. He coughed gently to cover his embarrassment, and glanced over again at Melissa. She was still standing there, leaning against the doorpost now, taking it all in. Her expression gave nothing away. Tom bit his lip again. He hated being humiliated, especially when it was in front of the girl he admired so much.
'Tom, you are such an ass! You can see there's no bruising!' James admonished, like a school teacher to a naughty pupil. Tom winced, and coughed again, blushing. The evening heat and the dust were beginning to affect him now. He wanted to get outside into the cooler air, but James continued relentlessly.
'The bloated stomach, the lack of any other injury - both support my theory.' he said, smiling sardonically. 'Come on Tom! If' you're going to remain my assistant, you'll have to do better than that! You have a lot to learn!'
Tom took a sudden, deep interest in his shoes, noticing too that the tips of his ears were becoming uncommonly warm.
'Now,' James continued, 'We need to discover who the murderer is, and what his, or her motives were.' Hee he looked pointedly at Melissa, who had ventured a few paces inside the doorway.
James crouched down to examine the body more closely. Tom noted that Melissa was closer now, standing just behind his left shoulder, watching with wide-eyed interest. He wanted to stand next to her, to take hold of her hand...
'Any ideas Tom?' The sudden question directed at him made him start, and he looked up blankly.
'Well?' James asked, 'Whodunnit?'
Outside, in the distance, a dog had started to bark. Tom summoned up his courage, and said measuredly, 'It's obvious, I should have thought.'
'So tell me.' James smiled, enjoying the game.
Tom swallowed nervously, aware that both James and Melissa were now watching him expectantly.
'It must have been... it has to be the farmer!' The barking outside was growing louder now, and Melissa shot a brief glance through the barnyard door. James nodded sagely.
'It has to be the farmer - very good Tom!' he smiled, mockingly, Tom thought. Why does he have to play these stupid games whenever Melissa is around?
She was by Tom's side now. Again, he glanced briefly at her, and thought he caught a faint smile. She was however, taking an increasing interest in the gathering gloom outside the door of the barn.
'James...' she said, almost in a whisper.
James either didn't hear, or chose to ignore her. He was in his element now.
'Death was caused by strychnine poisoning. The killer was the farmer, and the motive was...' here he paused for dramatic effect, and immediately wished he hadn't. Before he could finish his pronouncement, there was a shout from outside the barn.
'Jimmy! Melissa! Where are you?'
Melissa smiled at Tom, and quickly walked to the entrance of the barn. 'We're in here, Mummy!' she replied. James and Melissa's mother appeared from the gloom.
'Come on you two!' she said, 'It's long past your bedtimes.'
James looked exasperated. His shoulders slumped and he took on a pained expression.
'Awwww, mum... just a bit longer, it's not even dark yet!' he whined. Tom was amazed at the sudden transformation. He was no longer assertive and confident. Now he was a whining, petulant thirteen-year-old. 'Jimmy, you know you have school tomorrow.' his mother said, her hands on her ample hips. 'Now come on, or you'll never get up in the morning!'
'But I'm in the middle of a murder investigation!' James complained, indicating the body.
'And get away from that filthy rat!' his mother warned, 'You know your father told you he doesn't want you coming in here when he's laid the rat poison!'
James, his head down, not even bearing to glance at Tom, stormed off out of the barn and down the pathway towards the farmhouse.
'Melissa,' her mother said, 'Say good night to Tommy.'
'Night Tom.' eleven year old Melissa smiled that gap toothed smile that always gave him that funny feeling inside. 'See you tomorrow in school.'
Melissa Hardiman turned, and followed her mother down the path, her pony tail swinging behind her.
'Night Melissa.' Tom whispered. He took one last look at the dead rat, and decided that police work wasn't for him any more. He was going to be interested in other, more important things from now on.
He took off, running across the dark meadow towards the glowing lights of his house.
Photo by Todd Petit on Wikimedia Commons
Story (c) by Steve Wheeler 2016